by Lorie Lewis Ham
This year Olivaia’s OLA in Lindsay, CA won Best of the Valley in the Big Fresno Fair San Joaquin Valley Olive Oil Competition. We decided to reach out to them and learn more about this locally grown olive oil. Recently we chatted with Giulio Zavolta, who is cofounder of Olivaia’s OLA together with his wife Rachelle Bross. Giulio is educated and trained in architecture, and Rachelle is a PhD trained dietitian.
KRL: When was the company started?
Giulio: We got started at the end of 2012 by purchasing an existing olive grove with 100 plus year old trees that were ready to be pulled. The grove had not been farmed for some time so the trees needed to be rehabilitated. We started by focusing on re-establishing ties with the California Ripe (table) Olive industry. In the process, we discovered that the grove had more than just Manzanilla & Sevillano olive varietals that they were looking for.
KRL: What inspired you to grow olives and make olive oil?
Giulio: Early California olive growers experimented with different rootstock, this is well documented. Whether it was to mitigate against disease, manage the height of the trees, and/or maximize yield, unique varietal rootstock was used to graft Manzanilla & Sevillano olive cultivars, both of which were in high demand for the burgeoning California Ripe Olive industry. Our Block X grove went through a period of neglect resulting in trees that grew from a number of seedlings from the unique rootstock. With no market for these unique olives, we set about making oil from them for personal consumption. What we discovered was a unique fruit forward oil that was reminiscent of oils I grew up with in Italy, where my family is from, and still farms olives. After a couple of years of Olivaia’s own experiments of blending the grove’s olives slated for oil, the necessary skills to forage the grove for just the right olives and the right ripeness was developed. Within a few years, Olivaia was not only increasing its tonnage of California Ripe Olives but also commercially released its first oils under the brand name Olivaia’s OLA in 2017.
KRL: Looking on your website it sounds like you have an interesting story as to what it was like when you first started and what you had to do, can you share some of that?
Giulio: Olivaia is essentially a California Ripe Olive grower and a small producer of premium extra virgin olive oils in the Lindsay area. With the release of Olivaia’s OLA in 2017, we won Best of Show at the San Joaquin Valley/Fresno Fair Olive Oil Competition in 2018. We got some media attention back then.
This year despite many farming issues, we were awarded several medals including the Best of the Valley. This is significant as most of the 100+ year old olive trees in the Tulare County area are being pulled for more lucrative crops. We started producing olive oil with our centennial trees to save our trees but also to demonstrate that there is value, historical, cultural, and culinary, in working with our majestic trees. Rather than destroying the rich olive history in Tulare, we should be celebrating it. This year’s Best of the Valley is further validation of our mission. Besides, as we battle more and more with lack of water, olives are in some ways the crop of the future, as they require a lot less water than most other crops. And why not grow more olives? There are endless studies that demonstrate the health value of extra virgin olive oils. Aren’t a fun handful of olives better than a bag of chips? In fact, Musco, who we sell our table olives to, package them with their Pearl or Early California brands in easy to carry packages.
KRL: What were your backgrounds before that?
Giulio: Getting to where we have has not been easy. The low returns and the farming challenges have tested our resolve to turn our grove around. We have had to rely on the lure of the family history in olives, friendly experienced farming neighbors, and our respective backgrounds. Rachelle is a PHD trained dietitian who is passionate about food, health, science, cooking, and family. She has spent her career trying to help people live healthier lives by conducting research and publishing scientific articles on how what we eat affects our health. She is now proud of the fact that she actually grows food that is healthful and is now directly helping people to understand that eating well and eating healthy is the same thing. Giulio who has several degrees in architecture has learned through design to appreciate history, science, and the environment. The olives on the other hand have taught him that success demands the active engagement of all three. I currently oversee all growing related activities and ensure that the trees are thriving, and giving back with their history and fruit. We are also both involved with the industry at large through their board positions at the California Olive Council (COOC), the California Olive Committee (COC), and the Olive Growers Council of California (OGCC). The passion that grows out of all of this and the rich rewards of the olives keep us all focused. The fact that we managed to save a piece of the rich Lindsay olive history is an added motivating bonus. We are very proud of our History in a Bottle!
KRL: What makes your olive oil unique?
Giulio: All of our extra virgin olive oils stand out for their approachable yet fruit forward nature. The oils’ intense aromas that come from the very fields on which the olives are grown, are marked by grassy, green almond, and floral notes. Olivaia’s OLA works hard at finding just the right balance of fruit, pungency, and bitterness. The goal has always been to produce a premium oil that wonderfully pairs wonderfully with food in the same way that wine complements certain dishes. We like to consider our oils as flavor enhancing pantry essentials. Judging from the accolades Olivaia’s OLA has received over the last few years it seems that there are others who agree with us.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Giulio: One last thing to mention, we would not be doing what we are if not for the Vera family of Vera Ranches. Their passion for olives and generosity of heart drew us to the Lindsay area. Following the passing of Albert Sr. & Ursula Vera, we became neighbors with Vera Ranches and we are certain that they are part the reason for our success. We are currently collaborating with Albert Vera Jr. on the prospective launch of a new joint brand called Cypress Groves of Vera Ranches to not only celebrate their olives but also commemorate the founder’s of Vera Ranches.